It’s been 4,352 days since the last time North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota played a football game. That stretches back 11 years, 10 months, and 30 days to October 18, 2003. In 2002, NDSU announced its decision to move to Division I. That decision put “The Game” on an indefinite hold. In the interim, the Bison flourished in Division I, knocking off teams from Power Five conferences and gaining national attention from the likes of ESPN on our way to becoming North Dakota’s team. UND, no doubt prodded by NDSU’s success, finally joined the Division I ranks in 2008.
It’s a game with a long history despite the 11-year hiatus. The teams first played in 1894 when Henry Bolley’s Bison took a pair of games from their northern valley neighbor. To put that in perspective, the state of North Dakota itself was just turning 5 years old when the teams first met on the gridiron. The teams renew their rivalry this weekend in a game that has all of North Dakota talking, especially after UND’s convincing opening game win over Wyoming – a team led by former Bison head coach Craig Bohl.
Whether you’re excited about the game, or prefer the two teams didn’t play – as is the case with some fans – nobody can deny the excitement surrounding “The Game.” It’s what’s on the minds of folks from Fargo to Fessenden and Grand Forks to Glen Ullin. Extra security for the game? Check. Ticket scalpers fetching $1,000 for last row seats? Check. A tailgating scene that will pack three WeFest like nights into one morning? Check. Both schools hosting viewing parties from coast-to-coast? Check.
And rightfully so. Nearly everyone in the Peace Garden State has a connection to one of the two schools. You won’t find a neutral fan in the state. Even politicos like Jack Dalrymple and Heidi Heitkamp, in their heart of hearts, will be cheering for one or the other. There is no fence to ride when it comes to this game.
The nostalgia surrounding “The Game” brings back fond memories of bygone days at Dacotah Field or Memorial Stadium. Like 1986, when Jeff Bentrim broke the national career touchdown record in Grand Forks. On the other side of the Nickel, I remember the sting in 1993 sitting in that same stadium the day before Halloween when UND beat the Bison for the first time since 1980 and tore down the goal posts, parading them down Columbia Road. It was the first time in my life that UND had beat the Bison. I remember Pa Swany with two sad Swany boys on the drive back to Maddock that afternoon. It was a tough weekend to trick-or-treat.
It was fire and ice, Rocky Hager and Roger Thomas dueling for in-state supremacy and North Central Conference titles. It was the veer against the 3-4 defense. It was the bankers talking down to all us aggies. It was four quarters for the Nickel. I had the words to “On the plains of North Dakota, standing there for all to see, is an old abandoned outhouse and they call it …” memorized when Reagan was president.
This week, it’s a game nobody can escape. What’s your score prediction, Swany? Fair question. I’ve been asked some variation of this seemingly simple question everywhere this week. At work, on a sports podcast, walking to lunch in downtown Fargo, at the mall, at Barnes and Noble, from clients on the phone, and even at the gym. You know that I’m a clever lawyer when I can answer that question without really answering the question. For the record, I went to Creighton Law School, not UND.
The question, though, isn’t so simple. I haven’t given anyone a prediction, not yet anyway. Instead, each conversation turned on the expectations game. That’s the real story here, isn’t it? The final score on the FargoDome scoreboards, while undoubtedly important, will take a backseat to the expectations game.
The common theme – with the singular exception of maybe UND’s locker room – is that the visiting team is playing with house money. The expectations are all on NDSU. The Bison are the four-time defending national champions and playing at home where they’ve won their last 24 games, including a 41-14 rout over Weber State last weekend. NDSU is gunning for an unprecedented fifth straight national championship. Rumors of College GameDay’s return swirl in the fall air. At the end of the day, the Bison are supposed to win, and win big, right?
You won’t find many pundits, or even UND fans, picking the kelly green and white. Case in point – our marketing person at Vogel Law Firm shared a funny story this morning. At a conference yesterday at Fargo’s Holiday Inn, our firm sponsored a gift card giveaway. To win, you had to drop your business card in one of two fishbowls. One if you thought NDSU would win “The Game,” the other if you thought UND would. Despite their chagrin, UND fans wanted the gift card and bet with their head, not their heart, dropping their cards in the NDSU bowl. At least in that contest, NDSU was the big winner.
On Sunday morning, just like a presidential debate, every headline will involve some variation of the expectations game. The frontrunner Bison did what they were supposed to do and won big, big deal, so what. Or, UND hung in there and the upstarts without a nickname gave the mighty Bison all they could handle, they’re closing the gap. Or, God forbid, UND pulled off the upset of upsets and Bison fans have climbed the cliffs. Herd and Horns doesn’t have enough booze in their place to drown out the sorrow of that catastrophe. It would be a lifetime of hell, with all due reverence to Hager, as opposed to only 365 days, for Bison fans if that happened. It was Hager who, after all, described coming up short in “The Game” as 365 days of hell for the loser.
With all that said, I could care less about the spread or expectations game. I just want a win, man. Win pretty, win ugly, I don’t care. Whether that comes by 40 points or 4 points, so long as the Bison are on top after 60 minutes, that’s good enough for this guy. I don’t want to relive another 1993 where Pa Swany has to console his two boys – now adults – after the unmentionable. Truth be told, I’m more worried about Ma Swany if that were to happen. I don’t think she could handle it.
I want to raise a tall one at Six Flags, the Turf, Chubs, Herd and Horns, wherever, and sing On the Plains, over and over, and over, again. You can keep your expectations game. Just give me a win.